How to Find the Perfect Academic Job (not just any TT job will do)

20 Aug

jobmarket_catAt the Annual Meetings last week, I found myself in an unexpected position. Graduate students going on the job market, wanted to meet with me to ask me for job market advice! Me? Advice? [looks around to see if someone older and wiser is standing nearby- nope] Crazy! It’s a new Assistant Professor role I didn’t anticipate (we only have applied graduate students in our department). Then I realized that the job market was such a long ordeal for me, that I am more than happy to give advice that makes it even remotely easier for someone else.

So for what it’s worth, here’s what I found myself telling people last week:

[Caveat: This post assumes that you are not in the position for an R1 job. If you are, more power to you, but the vast majority of us do not end up at an R1, and shockingly, many of us don’t want to end up at an R1. I was in a graduate program that only prepared me for an R1, unfortunately, and does a real disservice to many of it’s graduate students as a result. Thank goodness my advisor believed that a person could be happy at any sort of job that was a good fit for them.]

  • There IS a job out there somewhere for you. This might seem ridiculously idealistic, but I truly believe it to be the case. Very early on in graduate school one of my “academic sisters” (another advisee of my advisor) told me this, and described how it only took one TT interview for her to find what turned out to be the perfect job. It was job at a school and in a state she had never thought of and never would have imagined loving so much. She’s still there, with tenure. Her job market experience is atypical, especially today, when it takes people 3-4 moves and temporary positions to find the perfect TT fit. But, I think the advice still holds– there IS a job out there somewhere for YOU. But you might have to face head-on some myths, see past some bad advice, and apply to places your graduate program might not specifically prepare you for. In short, it has to fit you. It’s your job. No one else’s. Let me explain:
    • This perfect job might be at a place you’ve never even heard of. There are thousands of schools out there. Yes, there are well known R1s and liberal arts schools, but there are also hundreds of small liberal arts schools, small public universities, state schools, regional schools etc. And the people who work there are happy and and have fulfilling careers! So when you apply, keep an open mind, and apply widely. You never know what’s out there. I had not only never heard of my school before, I had to look it up again online when I got the interview request because I didn’t even remember applying for it.
    • Everyone’s perfect job looks different. Like I said, at my graduate school we were made to believe a job at an R1 was the only goal worth having. This is absolutely not the case. I have a  friend who, after much struggle against this expectation, got a job at a community college where she only teaches. She loves it. She realized she didn’t much like the writing and publishing side of academia. And you know what? That’s ok! That’s more than ok, actually, it’s great! Who wants to spend their life doing something they hate? Community colleges can be great places to work. Your perfect job might include more service, less research, and more teaching. Or, it might be equal parts all three. There are expectations (academia is full of hierarchies) that some schools that are more prestigious  are therefore are more desirable places to work than other schools. Again, not the case. I’ll repeat that there are lots of unknown and little known schools out there where people build happy careers.
  • Don’t make uninformed judgments about teaching loads listed in job ads. I remember applying for jobs and seeing 3/3 and 4/4 teaching loads and making lots of assumptions about what mattered at that school (i.e. not research). I applied for 3/3s but not 4/4s. Combine this with the fact I went to an R1 that not only gave me little teaching experience, but didn’t prepare me for a teaching/research job, and I really didn’t know what I was doing. It turns out that the teaching load doesn’t tell you everything. Here’s why:
    • Some schools might list that they’re 4/4 (like mine) but actually have an ongoing practice where faculty engaged in active research only teach 3/3. No one at my school actually teaches 4/4. And some schools automatically give course releases for the first couple years but don’t list that in their job ad.
    • Class size also makes a huge difference. For example, my last semester at the small liberal arts school where I had my VAP, I had 85 students in 2 classes. In one class had 50 students, the other 35. Those were the class caps– 50 for the Intro class, and 35 for topical courses (and we won’t even go into the fact kids were paying $62 grand a year for that). My current state school has a scary sounding 3/3 load (after the research release). But, I’ve only ever had 55 students in those 3 classes. Core courses are limited to 20 students (I have 2 sections of those). And topical courses, while they have a size limit of 35, generally have less than 20 students in them. And small classes make me happy.
    • Course repeats make things so much easier. My 3/3 load includes two sections of one course, so it feels more like a 2/2. Yes, it means double the students and grading, and double time spent in the classroom. But, mentally, it’s easier to teach 2 sections of the same course. It feels like less of a daily prep to just repeat what you did before.
  • Tailor your letter and application as much as you can for the school. I know everyone knows this, but I think it really bears repeating. All those unique schools out there want to know why you’ll be a good fit. They want to know that you bothered to read their website, to learn about their program, their research circles, their core curriculum, their school’s relationship with the community etc. They want someone to be there and contribute to those things, so say so in your letter. Be as specific as possible.
  • If you’ve been in a visiting or contingent position, ensure sure your letter and materials make the transition from graduate student to scholar. I didn’t realize that using the same materials I did as an ABD graduate student while I was a VAP would hurt me on the job market until I took a “Critique Me” workshop at a conference. A bunch of wonderful profs I had never met, from a variety of schools, ripped my materials apart and helped me make sure that I sounded like an established scholar, and not a student. I believe this made a big difference in landing a tenure track job.
  • can you tell this is from pinterest?

    can you tell this is from pinterest?

    Be yourself. If you want to land a job that’s the perfect fit for you, be comfortable being yourself on the job market. Make sure your application materials reflect you, and not what you think you should sound like, or what you think they want you to be like. When you go on the interview, be yourself. Be a professional version of yourself (yes, wear the suit, introduce yourself, smile, ask people about their work etc.), but be yourself. Relax a bit, laugh, be kind to everyone, and talk about your research/teaching/service with enthusiasm. That’s the best way to find a place that’s a good fit. The goal is for them to see you– who you really are– as someone who cares about their job and as someone they want to work with every day. Read all the interview advice you want, prepare your questions, job talk, teaching demo etc. but just take a deep breath and relax into it.


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